4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Kevin Bacon Edition


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today is the birthday of everyone’s favorite, hard-working character actor, Kevin Bacon!  And that means that it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Films

Friday the 13th (1980, dir by Sean S. Cunningham)

Quicksilver (1986, dir by Thomas Michael Donnelly)

JFK (1991, dir by Oliver Stone)

X-Men: First Class (2011, dir by Matthew Vaughn)

 

A Movie A Day #317: Flashpoint (1984, directed by William Tannen)


November 22, 1963.  While the rest of the world deals with the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, a man named Michael Curtis drives a jeep across the South Texas desert, heading for the border.  In the jeep, he has a $800,000 and a high-powered rifle.  When the jeep crashes, the man, the rifle, and the money are left undiscovered in the desert for 21 years.

1984.  Two border patrol agents, Logan (Kris Kristofferson) and Wyatt (Treat Williams), are complaining about their job and hoping for a better life.  It looks like they might get that opportunity when they come across both the jeep and the money.  A bitter Vietnam vet, Logan wants to take the money and run but Wyatt is more cautious.  Shortly after Wyatt runs a check on the jeep’s license plate, a FBI agent (Kurtwood Smith) shows up at the station and both Logan and Wyatt discover their lives are in danger.

Though it was made seven years before Oliver Stone’s JFK, Flashpoint makes the same argument, that Kennedy was killed as the result of a massive government conspiracy and that the conspirators are still in power and doing whatever they have to do keep the truth from being discovered.  The difference is that Flashpoint doesn’t try to convince anyone.  If you’re watching because you’re hoping to see a serious examination of the Kennedy conspiracy theories, Flashpoint is not for you.  Instead, Flashpoint is a simple but effective action film, a modern western that uses the assassination as a MacGuffin.  Though Kris Kristofferson has never been the most expressive of actors, he was well-cast as the archetypical gunslinger with a past.  Rip Torn also gives a good performance as a morally ambiguous sheriff and fans of great character acting will want to keep an eye out for both Kevin Conway and Miguel Ferrer in small roles.

44 Days of Paranoia #6: JFK (dir by Oliver Stone)


JFK-John-F-Kennedy-DVD-Yon-OLIVER-STONE__76044126_0When I first decided to do this series of reviews of conspiracy-themed films, I knew that I would eventually have to review the 1991 Oliver Stone film JFK.

JFK is one of those films that continues to divide audiences.  Those who think that John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy tend to love this film and are given to describing JFK as being “one of the most important films ever made.”  Those who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin dismiss Stone’s film as being left-wing propaganda.  Just check out  the message board at the imdb if you need evidence of just how worked up people get over this film and its subject matter.

It seems that very few of the people who criticize or praise JFK ever review it as a work of cinema.  Instead, they focus on the film’s politics.  If I criticize the film for wasting the talents of Sissy Spacek or featuring one of Kevin Costner’s least interesting performances then I’m running the risk of having to deal with angry conspiracy theorists telling me that I need to open my eyes to the reality of American history.  On the other hand, if I praise Tommy Lee Jones’s wonderfully decadent turn as one of the film’s conspirators, chances are that someone is going to accuse me of being a naive leftist.

Then again, perhaps that reaction is to be expected.  Oliver Stone is one of our most political and least subtle filmmakers.  His movies are specifically designed to challenge the status quo.  For that reason, it’s not surprising to discover that Stone considers JFK to be the best of all of his films.

JFK is based (rather loosely, some claim) on the true story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) and how, in 1967, he charged businessman Clay Shaw (played by Tommy Lee Jones) with being a part of a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy.  Shaw was eventually acquitted and both Jim Garrison and his investigation remain controversial to this day.

JFK courts controversy immediately with its portrayal of Jim Garrison.  I’ve read several accounts of the Garrison investigation and the one thing that they all seem to agree on is that Jim Garrison was a flamboyant, bigger-than-life figure who enjoyed publicity.  Even among those who believe that Garrison uncovered some valuable evidence as a result of his investigation, there is a good deal of ambiguity about Garrison’s motives.  However, in Stone’s film, Jim Garrison is played by Kevin Costner and is portrayed as being an incorruptible, all-American idealist.  It’s not that Costner gives a bad performance.  Instead, it’s just a rather uninteresting one, especially when one compares Costner’s Garrison to some of the stories about the real-life Garrison.

However, as the film unfolds, it becomes obvious that Stone is using Costner’s blandness to the film’s advantage.  Over the course of three hours, JFK slowly peels back layers of secrecy and cover-ups and reveals the shadow world that, according to Stone, lurks underneath everyday reality.  Costner’s Garrison might not be interesting but he is a stable presence.  He anchors the film, giving us someone to relate to while the film itself grows more and more bizarre.

While Costner’s might give the least interesting performance of his career in this film, the same cannot be said of the rest of the cast.  JFK is full of familiar faces, many of whom are only on-screen for a few minutes but all of which play an important role in creating Stone’s shadow universe.  Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Michael Rooker, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones; they all have small roles but every single one of them makes an undeniable impression.  Whether you agree with the film’s conclusions are not, it’s impossible not to enjoy JFK for the chance to spot a bunch of familiar faces giving memorably bizarre performances.

But ultimately, its impossible to review JFK without considering the film’s conclusions.  JFK makes the case that John F. Kennedy was killed as the result of a massive right-wing conspiracy that involved the military, business interests, the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, and the mafia.  By the end of the film, the question becomes less who killed JFK and more who didn’t kill JFK.

Myself, I’m not going to claim to be enough of an expert on the Kennedy assassination to argue whether JFK is accurate or if it’s just propaganda.  However, as a film reviewer, I can say that it’s a very well-made and powerful film but it’s also one of those films that works better the first time you see it than the second time.

The first time you see it, the film overwhelms you.  It leaves you convinced that yes, there was a conspiracy and yes, everyone was involved and yes, Jim Garrison was right!  It convinces you so thoroughly that you end up using exclamation points, just to make sure everyone knows how convinced you are.

However, with each subsequent time that you view JFK, you became a bit more aware of just how manipulative and one-sided it truly is.  You become a bit more aware of the technique underneath the outrage and, if you’re a smart film watcher, you remember that JFK is a recreation as opposed to being a historical document.  You become more and more aware that Stone approached the material with a destination in mind and, like any good director, he has specifically shaped the material to make sure that you reach that destination at the end of the journey.

That was certainly my experience with JFK.  I first saw it in high school and it convinced me that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy.  Then, when I was in college, I watched it for a second time and, though I still believed the film’s conclusions, I also found myself much more aware of how the film’s length and Stone’s direction were designed to beat the audience into submission.  When I saw the film a third time, I found myself resenting the film’s manipulative nature and, as a result, I found it a lot more difficult to accept Stone’s conclusions.

However, when I rewatched the film last night for this review, I was surprised to discover that JFK actually holds up pretty well.  It’s still way too long (and, unlike a lot of other reviewers, I am not impressed by the droning speech that Costner delivers at the end of film) and Stone’s lack of subtlety does backfire on a few occasions.  However, perhaps because I was finally watching the film as entertainment as opposed to judging the film on its political or historical merits, I discovered that JFK is a watchable and entertaining film, one that does a pretty good job of making Stone’s case.  If nothing else, it’s worth watching just for the chance to see the wonderfully snarky performances of Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Oldman.

Perhaps the best thing that I can say about JFK is that its the type of film that will inspire smart people to do their own research and come to their own conclusions, which may or may not be the same conclusions that Oliver Stone reaches.

And, honestly, isn’t that the most that we can ask of any film?

JFK

44 Days of Paranoia #4: Interview With The Assassin (dir by Neil Burger)


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Continuing with the 44 Days of Paranoia, we today take a look at one of the best films to have been inspired by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 2002’s Interview With The Assassin.

Interview With The Assassin tells the story of Ron (Dylan Haggerty), a cameraman who, at the beginning of the film, has recently lost his job.  His gruff neighbor, an ex-Marine named Walter (a brilliantly menacing Raymond K. Barry), approaches Ron and tells him that he’s dying of cancer and he wants Ron to film him confessing to a crime.  After Ron sets his camera up, Walter proceeds to state that he was the second gunman and that he — and not Lee Harvey Oswald — was the sniper who killed President Kennedy.  When Ron asks Walter who hired him to kill Kennedy, Walter says that he was approached by a man named John Seymour but that he’s not sure who Seymour was working for.

Ron, not surprisingly, is initially skeptical of Walter’s claims.  However, Walter gives Ron a spent shell casing that he claims he grabbed off the ground after he shot Kennedy.  Walter explains that the only reason he’s been allowed to live is because he has that shell casing and, therefore, can prove that there was a second gunman.  Ron gets the shell casing analyzed and is informed that it was probably fired in 1963.

Still skeptical but now intrigued, Ron agrees to make a documentary about Walter and his claims.  Walter and Ron drive across the country to find John Seymour and confront him.  Along the way, they stop in Dallas and Walter shares more of his memories of killing Kennedy.

As Ron becomes more and more convinced that Walter is telling the truth, he also finds himself becoming more and more immersed in Walter’s secretive and fatalistic worldview.  However, as their paranoid road trip continues, Ron also starts to find reasons to doubt whether or not Walter is telling the truth about anything.  It all leads to a genuinely surprising finale that forces us to reconsider everything that we had previously assumed about both Ron and Walter.

I usually hate found footage films but Interview With The Assassin is a wonderful exception.  In his directorial debut, Neil Burger (who would later direct the brilliant Limitless) makes good use of the faux documentary format.  As opposed to many other found footage films, Interview With The Assassin actually provides a believable reason for why the characters are filming everything and, even more importantly, it’s willing to both explore and question the motives of the man holding the camera.  As a result, even though he spends much of the film off-screen, Ron becomes as interesting a character as Walter.

The genius of Interview With The Assassin is to be found in the film’s ambiguity.  While the film creates a believable atmosphere of conspiracy and paranoia, it also forces the viewer to interpret what she’s seen and heard for herself.  Is Walter crazy or is he telling the truth?  Is Ron a hero trying to uncover the truth or is he a frustrated journalist who is exploiting a dying and mentally disturbed man?  Convincing arguments can be made for any of those interpretations as well as a dozen more.  I’ve seen the film a handful of times and I’m still conflicted on just how I feel about both Walter’s claims and the initial assumption that Ron is meant to be the film’s hero.

Interview With The Assassin is a film that invites its audience to think.  As a result, it’s a film that deserves to be seen.

Raymond Barry in Interview With The Assassin

Raymond Barry in Interview With The Assassin

44 Days of Paranoia #2: Executive Action (dir by David Miller)


The Kennedy Memorial in Downtown Dallas

The Kennedy Memorial in Downtown Dallas

Even though it happened 22 years before I was born, I sometimes feel as if it was only yesterday that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

A lot of that is because I’m from Dallas.  When I was born, my family lived in Oak Cliff, a few blocks away from where the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald once lived.  I drive by the Kennedy Memorial several times a week.  I’ve gone to the Sixth Floor Museum.  I’ve made out on the Grassy Knoll.  On a daily basis, I see tourists who have come down here from up north with their preconceived prejudices, their unwieldy copies of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and their overactive sweat glands.  (“How do you handle the heat!?” they ask when the temperature is barely above 90.)  With the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaching, the Dallas Morning News has been running daily stories examining every detail of that terrible event.

The rest of the nation, of course, will never let us forget that JFK was assassinated in Dallas.  Just last week, there was an idiotic and bitter opinion piece in The New York Times, written by James McAuley, in which he claimed that Dallas was a “city of hate” that should feel more guilt over the JFK assassination.  As McAuley (who is studying history at Oxford and is not a resident of that city that he apparently feels qualified to judge) put it, “For 50 years, Dallas has done its best to avoid coming to terms with the one event that made it famous: the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.”

This, of course, is bullshit.

There are two competing schools of thought about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  One says that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible.  The other is that Kennedy was killed as the result of a complex conspiracy.

JFK Assassination Bullets

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.  Well, Oswald was born in New Orleans but he was raised up north in New York City.  He was also a communist with a history of mental instability.  Hence, if you accept that Oswald was the lone assassin than you also have to be willing to accept that Oswald would have tried to kill Kennedy regardless of what city he was living in.

IMF Head-Perp Walk

Things get a bit more complicated if you believe that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy.  But let’s consider the usual suspects that come up whenever people start talking about the possibility of conspiracy.  The Mafia was based in the north.  The CIA was based in Washington, D.C.  The anti-Castroites were based in Miami.  Again, all of these conspirators would have killed Kennedy regardless of what city he went to in November.

It’s easy for the rest of the country, in a fit of jealousy, anger, and delusion, to blame Dallas and Texas for the assassination of John F. Kennedy but, regardless of whether you believe in the lone assassin or a larger conspiracy, the truth is far more complex.

Over the next few days, as part of the 44 Days of Paranoia, I’ll be taking a look at some of the many films that were inspired by this assassination.  Let’s start things off with one of the lesser known entries in the JFK genre, 1973’s Executive Action.

Executive Action opens with a series of grainy, black-and-white photographs of both America in the 1960s and the men who, over the course of the film, will be portrayed as having plotted and carried out the assassination of President Kennedy while a mournful piano plays in the background.  It’s a low-key but eerily effective opening and it also lets the viewers know exactly what type of film they are about to see.  As opposed to Oliver Stone’s far better known JFK, Executive Action is a low-key, almost deliberately undramatic film.   Despite the fact that there are some familiar faces in the cast (or, at the very least, familiar faces to those of us who watch TCM), Executive Action almost feels as if it could have been a documentary.

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As the film opens in 1963, we see a group of very rich men talking about the future of America.  Ferguson (Will Geer) and Foster (Robert Ryan) are concerned that President Kennedy’s policies are going to destroy America.  Foster is worried that Kennedy is planning on cutting back on military spending.  Ferguson is upset by Kennedy’s support of the Civil Rights movement.  (In one memorable scene, we see Martin Luther King delivering his Dream speech on TV before the camera pulls back to reveal Ferguson watching in disgust.)  Their associate, the shadowy Farrington (Burt Lancaster), argues that the only way to stop Kennedy is to assassinate him and put the blame on a lone gunman.

With the support of Ferguson and Foster, Farrington recruits a group of gunmen (led by Ed Lauter and including Roger Corman regular Dick Miller) and works to set up the perfect patsy.  A man (James MacColl) goes around Dallas, acting obnoxious and telling anyone who will listen that his name is Lee Oswald.  At Ferguson’s insistence, a picture is doctored to make it appear as if Lee Harvey Oswald is posing in his backyard with a rifle.  As all of this goes on, the date of November 22nd steadily approaches…

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As I stated before, Executive Action is an almost obsessively low-key film.  That, however, works to the film’s advantage.  Ferguson, Foster, Farrington, and the other conspirators are chillingly believable because they are presented almost as being anonymous.  Instead of being portrayed as being super villains, they are instead men who approach assassination as just another part of doing business.  The impression one gets is that Kennedy isn’t the first leader they’ve had killed and he probably wasn’t the last.  Director David Miller seamlessly mixes historical footage with film reenactments and the end result is a disturbingly plausible film.

Unfortunately, Executive Action is less well-known than some of the other films that have argued that a conspiracy was responsible for the assassination for John F. Kennedy.  However, it may very well be the best.

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